Nagini is best known, where she is known, as Voldemort’s loyal pet snake in the Harry Potter universe: a magical creature who killed Snape and was ultimately beheaded by Neville Longbottom in his crowning moment of glory. But the new trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second of five prequel films, set off a Twitter firestorm today with the revelation that she was once a human woman. Let us try to explain why.
The trailer itself provides little context beyond another character dramatically whispering “Nagini” while actress Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron) transforms into a snake. Kim (in an interview with Entertainment Weekly) and J.K. Rowling (on Twitter) shed more light on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment: Nagini is a maledictus, a woman who can (for now) shift from human to snake freely, but who will ultimately be trapped in her serpentine form thanks to a matrilineal blood curse. She starts off as a member of a traveling circus and a friend to troubled fugitive Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). How she gets from Point A to Point Servant of a Magical Fascist is still unclear.
As with Dumbledore’s sexuality, Rowling says she has known Nagini’s origin story since the beginning. But the newly revealed background makes certain aspects of the books much more disturbing—not least the fact that Nagini ate people, or the part where Voldemort lived off of her “milk” (venom, we hope) while in a weakened state. It also means Nagini was an Asian woman who became Wizard Hitler’s “pet” for decades, which is both literally dehumanizing and an unfortunate way to bring more women of color into your story. Sadly, tweets like this one are no longer satire:
The twist is the latest in a series of controversial calls for The Crimes of Grindelwald, which is strenuously avoiding any acknowledgement that Dumbledore is gay and has proudly kept Johnny Depp in the title role despite domestic abuse allegations. Although we’ve only seen a brief glimpse of the actual character, Korean fans of Kim (and of the Potterverse) are understandably worried about Nagini’s seeming embodiment of the “exotic foreigner” trope, and for many, knowing her fate—forced to sustain Voldemort with her bodily fluids before she’s finally, brutally decapitated—has cast a pall over the role. How the film will handle her arc remains to be seen, but the retroactive creepiness of lines like “You will milk her before we retire, Wormtail” is already indisputable.
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